Ashura as a Myth
The Day of Ashura is a day of mourning for the martyrdom of Husayn in the Battle of Karbala for the Shia Muslims. A rich tradition of beliefs and rituals surrounds the commemoration of this day: there are intense, poetic recitations, there are beating drums and chants, narrations of the history of the event, public processions, ceremonial chest beatings, ritual flagellations, and even re-enactments of the battle of Karbala. There is a deeper significance to all of this, which I became aware of only after I had read Karen Armstrong's work on mythology.
Armstrong does not limit herself to the narrow definition of a myth as a 'purely fictitious narrative usually involving supernatural persons, actions or events...' something that is mutually exclusive with an actual historical event. Her conception of a myth is deeper and meaningful. A myth, she says "is an event that - in some sense - happened once, but which also happens all the time."
To my mind, it is difficult to find a more perfect contemporary example of it than the tradition of Ashura. The battle of Karbala is an actual historical event, it happened on 10th of Muharram 61 AH (680 CE). However, in a sense, this battle happens every year in the lives of Shia Muslims.
Armstrong says, a myth "is nearly always rooted in the experience of death and the fear of extinction." The death of Husayn forms the core of this tradition.
"Mythology is usually inseparable from ritual. Many myths make no sense outside a liturgical drama that brings them to life, and are incomprehensible in a profane setting." It is the rituals of recitations, narrations, chest-beatings, flagellations, re-enactments that breathe life into Ashura. While it is a very meaningful activity for the Muslims who do it, from the profane perspective, it is incomprehensible and absurd.
"The most powerful myths are about extremity; they force us to go beyond our experience. There are moments when we all, in one way or another, have to go to a place that we have never seen, and do what we have never done before." Ashura forces the participants to go beyond their day to day experience, and takes them to a time and place they have never seen, the day of the battle of Karbala.
"myth is not a story told for its own sake. It shows us how we should behave." For the Shias, the martyrdom of Husayn provides the central ethical narrative to their lives; it is not just a historical story, it leaves them with moral understanding of what sort of personal virtues they should aspire to in life.
In mythology "we entertain a hypothesis, bring it to life by means of ritual, act upon it, contemplate its effect upon our lives, and discover that we have achieved new insight into the disturbing puzzle of our world.
A myth, therefore, is true because it is effective, not because it gives us factual information. If, however, it does not give us new insight into the deeper meaning of life, it has failed. If it works, that is, if it forces us to change our minds and hearts, gives us new hope, and compels us to live more fully, it is a valid myth. Mythology will only transform us if we follow its directives. A myth is essentially a guide; it tells us what we must do in order to live more richly. If we do not apply it to our own situation and make the myth a reality in our own lives, it will remain as incomprehensible and remote as the rules of a board game, which often seem confusing and boring until we start to play."
This is how I make sense of the Day of Ashura.
Quotations are from A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong.